From kings of Oceania to Asian minnows: behind the decline of the Socceroos

Making waves: Former Melbourne Heart defender Simon Colosimo is deputy general secretary of FIFPRO.Credit:Vince Caligiuri

They cite numerous reasons why the national team slipped from the Asian Pole, the most common of which are:

  • players are not mentally strong enough and lack resilience and determination;
  • seasons have been shortened so much that good young players simply don’t play enough football;
  • the development system that spawned the Golden Generation has been dismantled and replaced by a user-paid system of academies that excludes talented teenagers whose parents cannot afford high-quality training programs;
  • the club culture that has spawned Australia’s great players has been undermined, leaving behind a generation of players who know how to play, but don’t always understand the essence of their sport;
  • the collapse of localism and clearly understood paths that routed the best players from their local club through the pyramid to the national teams;
  • the closure of the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) football program, the system that has trained and nurtured so many of Australia’s best players;
  • the phenomenon of ‘overcoaching’, in which sometimes the best and the brightest are judged in a straitjacket in regulated game patterns, which too often lack spontaneity and creativity;
  • lack of investment compared to other countries in the Middle East and Asia that spend huge sums on development systems, national competitions and national teams.

The move to Asia

Australia’s move to the Asian Football Confederation in early 2006 was intended to give the Socceroos more games against better opponents so that they would improve faster than they were by easily beating minnows on the Pacific Island and New Zealand in the qualifying zone of Oceania.

When Arnold (then temporarily employed as .) Gus Hiddink was in the Netherlands) led the Socceroos in their first game of the new era in Manama against Bahrain in February 2006, the script went according to plan. Australia won an Asian Cup qualifier 3-1 and a pattern was established.

A shirtless John Aloisi celebrates scoring the penalty against Uruguay that brought Australia to the 2006 World Cup.

A shirtless John Aloisi celebrates scoring the penalty against Uruguay that brought Australia to the 2006 World Cup.Credit:AP

Often it seemed that their Asian rivals were a goal behind before each match started, so overwhelmed many felt towards players such as Mark VidukaHarry Kewell, Aloisi, Tim Cahill, Lucas Neill and Brett Emerton. Many opponents admitted that they had only seen the Australians on broadcasts of the English Premier League and hardly dreamed of meeting them in competitive matches.

Even then, those in the know were likely to have trouble ahead. According to the last gasping loss to Italy at the 2006 World CupHiddink gathered a handful of journalists at the team hotel (including this writer) and told us the Socceroos would struggle to qualify for future World Cups.

Hiddink was not immediately right, but he was not far off: after easy World Cup qualifiers in 2010 under the late Pim Verbeek, Holger Osieck’s squad only qualified for Brazil 2014 with a win over Iraq in the last game.

below Ange Postecoglou they needed the playoffs to go to Russia in 2018 and beat Syria and then Honduras, but the first game in particular was a close run.

Now the Socceroos are fighters in a region dominated by Japan and South Korea, with Iran, Saudi Arabia and all around them better challengers.

The talent is there, but where is the mental strength?

Aloisi believes youngsters coming through are just as talented as his generation, but wonders if they lack the desperation or mental strength his cohort possessed and if the A-League offers them the kind of safety net that didn’t exist 20 years ago.

“Everyone knew we were good footballers and we were strong physically and mentally,” Aloisi said. “Many of us had to be resilient because of the long time we spent abroad (he went to Belgium at age 16, Kewell and… Cahill left at the same age) and how many setbacks we endured. The generation that comes through probably doesn’t have that resilience yet.

“I think it’s great that we have a good professional set-up and the players will improve technically and tactically. But we seem to have taken away that hard-working, never-say-die attitude.”

The system that pays the user

International defender Colosimo was an almost contemporary of Aloisi and is now deputy general secretary of FIFPRO, the worldwide players’ union in the Netherlands.

He shares Aloisi’s concerns about younger Australians’ desperation to play at the higher echelons, but believes the whole development trajectory has structural flaws. In particular, he is critical of the proliferation of private and club academies where admission often hinges on a young person’s parent’s ability to cough up thousands of dollars in fees.

“I think the user pays model plays a big part,” says Colosimo. “Access is now much more difficult. To play at the highest level from 10 to 16, it is quite expensive. It builds a transactional mindset rather than developing a cultural bond with a local club and playing and evolving through that path.”

Tim Cahill scores his remarkable volley goal against the Netherlands at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Tim Cahill scores his remarkable volley goal against the Netherlands at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.Credit:AP

Colosimo came through at Carlton in the old National Soccer League (NSL) along with contemporaries Vince Grella (now a player agent based in Italy) and Mark Bresciano, an FA board member. All three played locally at first (in Brunswick, Springvale and Bulleen respectively) and struggled to establish themselves as senior players.

“I haven’t played for the state team for three or four years,” said Colosimo. “Vincenzo also fell by the wayside sometimes, Mark was a late bloomer, but we came through from a strong cultural environment.”

He also believes – a view partly endorsed by Smith – that children are coached too much in rigid systems and not allowed to develop the kind of spontaneity that makes all the difference in matches.

“Think of Harry (Kewell) as a child. Imagine that in the current system he can’t just grab the ball and run at players. He should slow down, pass and move the ball,” said Colosimo.

Harry Kewell celebrates at the 2006 World Cup in Germany after the Socceroos reach the knockout stage.

Harry Kewell celebrates at the 2006 World Cup in Germany after the Socceroos reach the knockout stage.Credit:Vince Caligiuri

Not enough matches

Smith, Busch and Colosimo agree that Australia’s younger players simply don’t play enough football because high-level youth leagues don’t have enough matches.

“When we were in the junior national teams, we always went to South America to play against tough opponents,” says Colosimo. “We were in Oceania, so we qualified for those junior World Cups. You cannot buy those experiences.”

Smith added: “It’s clear as hell: we don’t play enough football and haven’t for years and unless we change that nothing will change.

“We are now talking about a few generations. We had a spell when the A-League started three years when there was nothing all summer. Then the National Youth League started, that was good for a few years when you had about 18 games, then that was cut down to about eight. If you don’t give a chance to play, it doesn’t matter what you do – you’re going to have a hard time.”

Culture the crucial factor

Sticca is one of the country’s best-known players’ agents and football entrepreneurs.

He believes – like Busch’s boss of Professional Footballers Australia – that a culture built around local and local clubs has been a key ingredient to Australia’s recent success, and its decline over the past two decades has been a factor. is in the dwindling fortune of the national team.

“In the last 15 to 20 years you’ve had the NSL, the start of the A-League, the arrival of private and club academies, the demise of the AIS, so it’s an imperfect storm,” Sticca says.

Australian stars Aaron Mooy and Tom Rogic in action during Socceroos' 1-1 draw against Denmark in Russia 2018.

Australian stars Aaron Mooy and Tom Rogic in action during Socceroos’ 1-1 draw against Denmark in Russia 2018.Credit:Getty Images

“Football is built on passion, love for the game, teammates, camaraderie. Now you get kids switching clubs, an obsession with winning, pressure from parents, coaches leaving a club and taking half of the team with them because they are going somewhere with better facilities or more money.

“The road was clearer. You knew you played for your club, and you climbed the ladder of success through state teams, national championships leading to the opportunity to play for national teams, if you’re lucky for the AIS, under-17, under-20, Olyroos, then if possible a career abroad and the Socceroos.

“Now there is no AIS, there is no loyalty to the club, there is no attachment.”

PFA boss Beau Busch in his playing days at Sydney FC.

PFA boss Beau Busch in his playing days at Sydney FC. Credit:Anthony Johnson

Busch adds that as Asian rivals continue to invest heavily, Australia will need to rethink its development and player production systems.

“We have to be smarter about how we develop our talent, as we don’t have the population base of these other countries,” he says.

“We have to be smart about how we develop our national teams, our leagues, our clubs and our coaching to be able to compete.

“It’s not so much that a lot has gone wrong, it’s that Asia has improved so much.

“We’ve removed things like the FFA Center of Excellence and we weren’t quite ready for the clubs to take on that role.

“To develop talent, we need to focus on culture. It’s not just about the curriculum.

“When the A-League started, there was division in the game and that rift should have been remedied much sooner than it was. Now we need to produce an Australian system, not one that is taken or copied from abroad.

“Maybe it’s about street football, maybe it’s about coaching development, the curriculum and much more. It won’t stop at one thing.”

Galatas is president of the AAFC, the body pushing for the creation of a national second division with promotion and relegation (eventually) linked to the A-League.


His group argues that not only would this pose a danger on the pitch – which would harden players mentally and physically – but would also provide hundreds of additional professional opportunities for younger players, many of whom are being sacked for failing to make limited A-classes. -League squads.

“Different players develop at different speeds and different speeds,” Galatas says. “We would have more players in the game. It’s elusive, but it creates a broader and deeper culture, and I think that’s being overlooked.

“I’m not saying the Second Division is the panacea, but it’s a further improvement in our football culture and infrastructure. We only need a handful of them to eventually get through for the Socceroos, as late developers and the game as a whole and the national team benefit from this.”

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